The attack on Christians celebrating Easter in a park in Lahore, in which more than 70 people lost their lives, has again put the spotlight on Pakistan’s vulnerable religious minorities.
The suicide bombing on March 27, claimed by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, was a continuation of such attacks on the Christian minority over the years, the worst being the killing of more than 80 people at the All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2013.
Christians are being targeted for two reasons, say analysts. The first is that the community is seen as an ally of the West, and any attack on Muslims there is seen as justification for assaults on Pakistani Christians.
“Since September 11 and the resultant US military operation in Afghanistan, we have seen a rise in attacks on Christians in Pakistan,” says Mubarik Ali, a historian and political scientist.
Christians have been targeted in the past too “but in individual cases and much less numbers”, he says.
The second reason is Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, under which Christians have been accused, usually on false grounds and often to settle personal scores.
But the attacks in blasphemy cases have grown more vicious and violent. In 2014, a Christian couple was hacked and burnt to death at a brick kiln by a mob of hundreds who suspected them of burning copies of the Quran.
Police arrested more than 40 people but they were released because of pressure from religious parties.
“What we are seeing is that in the past, those accused of blasphemy would be handed over to police. Now it’s mob justice. And no one gets punished,” says Zohra Yusuf of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The blasphemy case that received the most attention occurred in 2009, when Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian farm worker in a small village of Punjab, was accused of blasphemy and put behind bars. What made her famous was that then Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer visited Aasia Bibi and expressed his reservations about the blasphemy laws under which innocent people could be so easily indicted.
These remarks cost Taseer his life as in 2011, when he was shot dead by his bodyguard who was angered by his questioning of the blasphemy laws.
In 2016, the bodyguard – Mumtaz Qadri – was hanged for his act but nearly a hundred thousand people came to pay tribute to him at his funeral.
“The fact that Aasia is alive and Qadri is dead has angered a lot of people in Pakistan,” says Ali.
It is that anger that possibly manifested itself in the attack on Christians at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park but the irony is that most of those who died and were injured were Muslims.
And yet the message was clear: Christians are under attack once again.
This has led to hundreds of Christians fleeing Pakistan in a bid to save their lives. According to the Church World Service, a faith-based NGO, hundreds have applied for asylum in Thailand and Sri Lanka.
“They are living in sub-human conditions,” says a journalist who visited a detention centre in Bangkok.
For most religious minorities, it is a similar predicament. Hundreds of Hindus have fled to India over the past five years while members of the Ahmadi community have sought asylum in the West over threats to their lives.
“What we forget is that the bulk remains in Pakistan,” says Badar Alam, a local journalist. Alam says a small percentage make it out of Pakistan because most members of religious minorities are poor and uneducated.
So far, the government has done little to address the concerns of minorities. Despite pronouncements made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, almost no one has been arrested in the repeated attacks on minorities.
Journalists say the PML-N government is under pressure from religious groups. In the case of the ruling party, many of those who carry out or back the attacks are political allies.
Analysts say that while Sharif’s government “may have made the right noises”, it remains to be seen whether it will follow up with action against militant groups and religious parties that have repeatedly targeted these vulnerable communities. There is little hope this will happen any time soon, they say.